Notes from Underground: Delphine Schrank’s ‘The Rebel of Rangoon’

By David Scott Mathieson 10 August 2015

The plaudits heaped on Burma’s post-2011 political reforms propound a top-down, elite driven transition that has proven both progressive and stable with widespread international support and domestic cooperation. Yet this analysis, replete with hagiographic portraits of senior government leaders given much of the credit for change, sidelines an important movement which deserves more recognition: average Burmese who peacefully resisted military rule and pushed for democratic change and respect for human rights for several decades.

Delphine Schrank’s stunning book “The Rebel of Rangoon” takes the reader into the clandestine world of the urban political operators that kept Burma’s struggle for democracy alive when many of their elders and contemporaries were imprisoned, exiled, or intimidated to avoid any activity that could be deemed as threatening to the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Schrank, a former Washington Post correspondent, came to Burma in 2007 after the popular protests of September, led by progressive Buddhist monks, were ruthlessly suppressed by security forces. She spent the next several years trailing a small group of National League for Democracy (NLD) youth wing activists in Rangoon, and her book is a forensically detailed story of their often subterranean struggle to avoid arrest, survive interrogation, keep their networks and cells active, and keep alive a dream for a more open and just society.

The rebel of the piece is a young firebrand activist called ‘Nway’, and his close circle of friends and fellow organizers, notably ‘Nigel’. As the book progresses, a new and younger generation of Burmese who want to push back against a rotten system and serve Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party—which rightfully won the 1990 elections. In all its gritty detail, the Rebel of Rangoon is an inner-narrative of activist lives and the undulating challenges of underground organization; at a time when even the act of discussing politics and real events was deemed subversive by a paranoid military structure, and often punished with long prison terms.

The evocation of everyday events is what makes this book unique. Nigel’s thwarting of a Special Branch surveillance tail by corralling a beer-swilling collective on the Rangoon docks, the dramatic motorbike chase than ensued, the problems of renting apartments for offices that could be raided, notoriously slow internet cafés to transmit information to exiled colleagues and international media, the obligatory travels to the émigré hub of Mae Sot in Thailand, the endless internal debates over elusive facts and the direction of the movement.

Worthy of the acquiring of the book in itself is its portrait of ‘Grandpa’, the undisputed godfather of political prisoners, writer and journalist Hanthawaddy U Win Tin, whose long incarceration and torture failed to dent his imperturbable decades-long defiance of the military and whose wit, intellect, and persistent political panache inspired Nway and his contemporaries.

Schrank also gives voice and presence to the often silent but suffering majority of the democracy underground, the families of the activists who have suffered in unimaginable ways for the activities of their husbands and wives, children and parents. Her account of Nigel’s heavily pregnant wife imploring guards at Insein prison to release her husband—and the grudging respect from the officials over the challenge—is an inspiring moment, but less so are the stories of petty harassment of family members by local officials and the damaging effect on work, education, health and wellbeing. It’s a squalid maxim of repressive rule: When you challenge the state, they always respond by coming after who you love.

Avoiding lazy clichés, Schrank also exposes the dark sides of the underground: petty jealousies, arguments over meager resources, crippling intergenerational disputes that wracked the NLD, an often fractious, internally competitive consortium of activists who blended political party mobilization and non-violent resistance, who invoked “unity” of purpose but at times limited free debate on a number of issues.

The book concludes with Nigel’s election to Parliament in the 2012 by-elections, and this epilogue brings the story almost full circle with its descriptions of the transitions limitations, such as rising religious extremism, the horrors of the war in Kachin State, and the realization that reform is limited. As Schrank relays through Nigel’s astute observation, “the real trenches of the ongoing struggle were in the slums and townships, in the grassroots, among people too poor to risk everything and too powerless to know how to defend against it. Places the tourists and businessmen would never see.” It is these spaces of denied justice that drive many Burmese activists today.

Many outsiders to Burma would know more about the role of Western campaigners who ventured into Rangoon more than two decades to engage in self-perceived cloak-and-dagger activism, which was often less swashbuckling than sweaty absurdity, and these derring-do do-gooders were more often than not arrested, deported, blacklisted and briefly celebrated. But the long-haul commitment was always the Burmese who stayed behind and slogged it out with the security services. Schrank as an author is almost totally absent, rightly giving the narrative to Nway and his comrades, and it is this approach that makes the book so grippingly vivid. Schrank is a writer of rare skill and the narrative crackles with the restless activity of its protagonists, consistently evoking emotion, tension, atmosphere and menace.

Some people view political activism as a self-indulgent nuisance thwarting formal, often elite, political processes. Others celebrate non-conformism, rebellion, peaceful subversion, and the élan of those who challenge the state such as students, labor organizers, writers, and democracy and rights promoters. For those who are predisposed to sneer at the underground, reading “The Rebel of Rangoon” will alert them not just to the proud Burmese tradition of bravery, commitment and sacrifice against harsh authoritarian rule, but also what they’re missing out on. Being a rebel is not easy, but it can be fun.

Delphine Schrank, The Rebel of Rangoon: A Tale of Defiance and Deliverance in Burma. Nation Books, 2015 (US$27).

David Scott Mathieson is a Senior Researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.